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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Export of cultural products from India

I am afraid it is a rather long post.

A few weeks back Edward posted a dynamite interview with Sekhar Kapur in Rediff. It is something I wanted to comment on. But unfortunately, it took me a while to get to it.

I have always been a big fan of Sekhar Kapur's films. But I did not know that he packs so much intellectual firepower .....

I am with him on the size of the prize at stake. But I have serious reservations about the ability of Indian entertainment industry to exploit it. I think Kapur is seriously underestimating the ability of Western advertising-image making-entertainment complex to co-opt and influence local pop culture and sensibilities to meet its programming needs.

The effect of Western visual culture on Asia is subtle and incremental. Occasionally, its impact on an unsuspecting and otherwise unprepared people can be devastating. I read a depressing account of it in The Guardian sometime back. The kingdom of Bhutan was the last Shangri La of South Asia. The king has not allowed television into Bhutan till about a year back. Some people contend that what happened after cable got unfettered access is not a direct effect of TV. It was bound to happen anyway. But an increasing number of people are tying the ensuing wave of crime, drug problems and unexplainable violence to the pent up unmet wants created by cable.

In Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Misra narrated the tragicomic stories of the wants created among the noveau riche of suburban India in the eighties. This was right after Mofussil India got 'Dallas' and 'Santa Burbara'. In the decade preceding that, Pico Iyer went looking for Asian culture and instead found Video Nights In Kathmandu.

Now, I am not claiming that similar cultural export from the east is impossible. Just consider Japan's gross national cool. Its worldwide influence can be seen in everything from animation to religion. But it is rather hard and too often it results in superificial iconization for Western consumption rather than resulting in a dialogue.

My question is more over the ability (or even the creation) of an Indian entertainment complex that can successfully exploit the market for Indian entertainment products in the diaspora and at the same time cater to a larger International market. My doubts are because of two different reasons. One is the increasing creative bankrupcy of mainstream Bollywood filmmakers to develop products that the market wants (which should not be construed to mean Indian creative bankrupcy). "In 2002 Bollywood lost $50m and in the first four months of 2003, another $15m has gone" (link).

Then there is the question of building an infrastructure that can create such products. One of the reasons, Bollywood can continue to churn out such an amazing number of loss making films is because there is so much underworld mafia money going into the film industry. In a story published some months back, Hindu Business Line found that despite RBI's best efforts, less than 5% of financing in the vast majority of mainstream films are coming from institutional, organized financial sources. As it says, structural difficulties of streamlining the filmmakig financing in India is considerable. Unless that is sorted out, Bollywood would continue to be in a mess.

In the mean time, television has been growing at the expense of cinema and music. And where do you think that growth is going?

Enter Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He runs the second largest media company in India now. Most of the popular soaps are on Star. It is now stuck in the middle of all sorts of regulatory wrangles in India (The Economist has good ongoing coverage of the fight over StartTV and the perennially emerging Indian broadcasting regulations. But those stores are all priced. But here is an angry Hindu editorial ).

So, yes, I would like to believe in the vision that Sekhar Kapur showed us. But India is simply not prepared. And I find his optimism slightly scary.

Lastly, I am not even sure about the desirability of such an entertainment complex. The changes that we see in India now are not because of any deliberate attempt by an organized band of cool merchants to influence public taste. It kind of happens. The US is different. I am not sure that popular taste here is really bottom up. It gets influenced in myriad small ways by various arbiters of popular taste. Are we sure that we want that to happen in India?

This is one of those areas where I have not sorted out my thoughts. But the subject is of enormous importance and will determine more than anything else the future shape of South Asia.

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